The Revoluntionary College Project
George Bush

ABOVE - Former U.S. President George Bush with College President John Toll on January 29, 1999.

Red SwirlGeorge H. W. Bush - Remarks

Washington College celebrated the 200th anniversary of the death of George Washington with a year-long series of special events. Former President George Bush and his wife Barbara received honorary Doctor of Public Service degrees and happily fielded previously approved student questions at a special convocation on January 29, 1999.

I, too, want to thank President Toll, the Board of Visitors and Governors, and everyone at Washington College for this degree.  It is an honor to join Barbara and Dr. [James]Watson in becoming a part of the Washington College community, named for one for whom we all have a respect that borders on reverence.

Let me also pay my respects to the Quantico Marine Band and Color Guard for adding a special touch of class to the proceedings today.  Seeing them reminds me that, of the things I do miss about my previous line of work, working with our nation’s Armed Forces ranks right up there at the top. And if I may add: A lot of people might consider concepts like duty, honor, country to be old fashioned, but if America is to remain free, strong, and good, service in uniform must never go out of style. The times may change, but some values should never change.

That said, it is an honor to be here for the opening event of a yearlong celebration of the life of George Washington. It is particularly an honor to follow in Washington’s great footsteps to receive this degree. The other time I followed in President Washington’s footsteps occurred ten years ago last week, when I was sworn into office on the 200th anniversary of his inauguration.

Today, we are gathered on the 200th anniversary of Washington’s death. And I am pleased to report that I have no intention of following in his footsteps there, not just yet, anyway.

The story goes that Harry Truman, who visited the 1946 commencement address here at Washington College, bristled the first time someone referred to him as a statesman. He said, “A statesman is a politician who’s been dead for 15 years.” And it’s true that we say nice things about those who have gone to their final reward. But when Washington died on December 14, 1799, perhaps it was no exaggeration to note, as one newspaper did, that our first president was embalmed with the tears of America. It was a sad day for our country, and certainly one for this school where Washington had invested much of his time and concern. That, in and of itself, is a rather precious and unique legacy to possess.

You can’t travel far in this part of the country without coming upon some place that boasts Washington slept here. As the saying goes, if all those claims are true, then Washington must have won the war in his sleep. But we know that Washington did more than sleep here.  Here, he offered his name in addition to his investment of time and money. And with that name go the ideals of leadership that form the foundation of this institution. After all, the name Washington today is synonymous with leadership.

And tonight, I thought I would try to bring us up to speed, and share a few thoughts about American leadership not only in the world today but also what it means for the future.

In some ways, it’s an inherently tough topic to address, because our role in the world today means different things to different people. Ten years ago, when I cam into office, our primary role in the world was still to act as a counterbalance to the Soviet Union. But events moved quickly during our four years. Everyday, it seemed we faced a new world-- as the Berlin Wall fell and Germany reunified; the Warsaw Pact disintegrated and Central and Eastern Europe were liberated (as were the Baltics); the Soviet Empire imploded, and a democratic Russia emerged in its wake. So much change took place so quickly and so peacefully, and today we take heart as freedom continues its steady march around the world.

Of course, that is not to suggest that the revolution ignited in the late 1980s has continued unabated, or without encountering significant challenges. The Cold War may be over, but big problems remain. Churchill once said: “The problems of victory are more agreeable than those of defeat, but they are no less difficult.”

Well, as agreeable as freedom’s victory in the Cold War is, it has also given rise to a difficult new debate about what our role in the world is. Whereas our role as leader of the Western Alliance used to define American leadership for the most part, today economic and domestic considerations compete with questions of national defense and security.

To give you an idea of how things have changed: Ten years ago, our ability to lead was measured by how we responded to events rapidly unfolding in Central and Eastern Europe, where people were making their stand for freedom. We were also gauged by how we interacted with the charismatic Soviet leader, Gorbachev, and how we respond to his bid to reform the Soviet system.

Today, the story is in Asia, and the priority issues seem to center on economics. The currency crisis, China, Jiang Zemin, these are the new issues, and countries, and names that dominate our attention.

But there is another difference too.

During the Cold War, each major development, from the various Soviet invasions, to questions about Star Wars, and all points in between, provoked serious debate in this country about the right policy to pursue. What should we do? How do we respond? Is this right? But during the cold War, there was not the over-riding doubt there is today about the big picture.

From the start of the Cold War there was a consensus that imperial communism posed a serious threat to our national interests, and that consensus formed the foundation on which most policy decisions were made. (Note, for example, that Democrats and Republicans alike quickly rallied behind President Truman when he introduced the doctrine of containment).

To be sure, there was more unity back then. Sen. Vandenberg’s maxim that all politics stop at the water’s edge held truer back then that it does today. Indeed, back in 1991, when I went to the Congress before Desert Storm to ask for a resolution authorizing us to use whatever means necessary to end Iraqi aggression against Kuwait, every single Democratic leader, every one, opposed the resolution. Yes, today it is different from Vandenberg’s day.

Today there is more doubt. Just as troublesome: Today there are two starkly contrasting, and fiercely competing, conceptions of America’s role in the world.

And the outcome of this debate, this philosophical competition, will go a long way towards shaping the world our children and grandchildren will live in.

The first is the view which, for the most part, prevailed during the Cold War. It is the view that we must stay engaged in the world, and do the hard work of diplomacy, and continue to champion the cause of freedom around the world.

The opposing view, sponsored by an unsavory coalition comprising extreme elements of the Left and the Right, is that it is time for America to come home and focus primarily on domestic problems. Some call it “America First.” There are two problems with America First.

The first is it puts America at a disadvantage when it comes to fostering trade and promoting regional stability in places like Asia. For example, time and again we’ve seen zealots in the labor and the environmental movements undermine a President’s attempts to negotiate trade with other countries by insisting on a multitude of preconditions.

The short-term effect is that they may succeed in delaying or stalling the President’s agenda, but the long-term result is that they also are hurting our credibility around the world. And when you lose your credibility in the international arena, you also lose your effectiveness to address and resolve problems.

The second problem with “America First” is that some are appealing to nationalist sentiments by bashing our strategic partners abroad. At times, we’ve heard some ugly references used, like those that Ross Perot used to argue against NAFTA back in 1992. I’ll never forget his ugly insults directed at Mexico.

My point is: The debate over America’s role in the world is far from over.

Out of the tumultuous pace and dramatic scope of the change we witnessed earlier in the decade, the landscape of this new era has yet to settle. As a result, we seem to be following the Yogi Berra rule,” when you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

But to me there is no choice about what our role should be in the post-Cold War era: We should lead with principle and clarity. We should stay engaged in global affairs, and work with our allies, and set a clear direction as to the kind of world we want to live in.

The Soviet bear may be gone, but new threats have emerged. And as Churchill forewarned, the superpower has receded, but difficult challenges surely remain.

Today, the geopolitical enemies we face are instability and unpredictability. They are international terrorism, religious fanaticism, weapons proliferation, and the drug trade.

Only the United States has the capability and the moral standing to address these issues on a global scale. That doesn’t mean we want, or need, to be the world’s policeman. Indeed, some people thought this is what I meant when I talked a bout a new world order. Others thought I meant creating a one-world government by subordinating our sovereignty to the UN or the WTO.

Not so!

What it does mean is that, as the sole remaining superpower, we have an obligation to help shape a more peaceful world in which freedom, democracy, and free markets are the norm. If se don’t do it, no one else can. Teddy Roosevelt, another one of my heroes, once said: “Much has been give to us, and much is rightly expected from us. We have duties to others and duties to ourselves, and we can shirk neither.” Just as it was in the 20th century, so too do I believe that American leadership is an absolutely indispensable ingredient for extending the promise of democratic capitalism into the 21st century.

These days I am out of politics, and happily so, but I still hope Barbara and I can find ways to contribute and do our part.

One thing I am proud of is our George Bush School of Governmental and Public Service, which opened last fall at Texas A&M University. It’s a relatively small program, but we have big hopes for what we want to accomplish there. Above all else, I want to share with these students my firm belief not only in the importance of American leadership, but also that public service is a noble calling. We need good and decent people to get involved in our political system, because our democracy is only as good as the men and women who participate in it.

So, to the students of Washington College, let me say: Get involved. Take an interest. If you don’t like the way things are, do something about it, don’t just criticize. Most of all, remember that character does matter. Some of you may have heard of Sam Rayburn, who was a Texas legend in political circles and who was one of the great Congressional leaders of the 20th century. Old Sam grew to be a respected and powerful man in Washington, but he came from humble beginnings. As a boy, his father told him: “Character is all I have to offer you. Be a man.” Character is important. Character is what remains.

As for me, it was the highest honor of my life to serve as President, and for Barbara and I to reside in that magnificent house. After my predecessor and fellow Texan, LBJ, left the White House, he said he knew the “time would come when I would look back on the majesty and the splendor of the Presidency and find it hard to believe that I had actually been there.” I feel the same way.

But life goes on, and our lives are truly blessed. What interests me now is our friends and family. I’ve got a lot of fishing I need to do with our grandkids.

The only politics that interests me now is the politics of my two sons. Last week, in fact, Barbara and I were in Austin to see our son, George W., sworn in to serve his second term as Texas Governor. Earlier this month, we were also in Tallahassee to see our other politically active son, Jeb, sworn in as the 43rd Governor of Florida. (It was 23 degrees in “sunny” Florida” for Jeb’s inauguration). Afterward, Barbara said she always thought it would be a “cold day in hell” before one of her sons did something like that. True, they were rambunctious lads growing up, but needless to say, we’re very proud of them, just as we are of their two brothers, Marvin and Neil, and their sister, Doro.

I had my chance to serve, and did my best. But it was Thomas Jefferson, one of George Washington’s worthiest peers, who spoke of a fullness of time when men should go, and not occupy too long the high ground to which others have a right to advance.” So it is in the Bush family. And I can honestly say that, after all the high level positions I’ve been privileged to hold, the three most important are the only three I have left, as a husband, a father, and a granddad.

What could be better than that?

So good luck to you all. Thank you very much.

Barbara Bush - Remarks

Let me first thank President Toll for those kind words, as well as the Board of Visitors and Governors for this degree—which I appreciate more than you know. Being invited to receive a degree with a renowned, Nobel-Prize winning scientist like Dr. James Watson—to say nothing of the greatest President in the world (whoops—forgot where I am—better make that the second-greatest President)—being here with these two distinguished leaders, I kinda feel like the mule that was invited to run in the Kentucky Derby. I’m a little out of my league.

But George and I are pleased to be here with all of you at Washington College, and pleased, too, to help you kick off this yearlong celebration of George Washington’s life. His was surely an extraordinary life, and it struck me that there are several similarities between your George and my George. For instance, both were war heroes; both served as President of the United States; and both are recognized for their integrity as men of true honor.

But as many of you know, only my George has jumped out of an airplane at 12,500 feet. George doesn’t like me to mention his skydiving exploits because he thinks it’s bragging. Well, I don’t mention it to brag—I just think he’s nuts.

Some of you may already be aware that the podium from which we are speaking with you today is a new one constructed from the historic Washington College Elm, which was so beloved it lives on as the namesake for your school paper, The Elm. But because this is a new podium, I’m going to go easy on it by sharing just a few brief thoughts, particularly for the students.

The first is that you should go immediately to your teachers and administrators and thank them for the work they do everyday to help educate your minds. You should thank your lucky stars for the opportunities that you have, and that many others don’t.

As a longtime advocate of family literacy, I meet people every day who struggle and sacrifice to learn how to read and who will tell you that you can’t put a price on a good education. The opportunities you have here to learn from such dedicated people is a wonderful blessing, and I hope you are taking full advantage of it. Look at it this way: Yu can’t spend every waking moment at the Cove.

Second, value your friends. They are your most valuable asset.

Third, whatever you do, make sure you enjoy life. Live is supposed to have joy. It’s supposed to be fun. When you decide to do something, you have a decision to make. You can either enjoy what you do, r hate it. I choose to love what I do, and recommend others to do the same.

Fourth, I hope the students of Washington College will get involved in trying to help solve the big challenges of your day. Remember: The real satisfaction of work comes when we work for a cause that is bigger than ourselves. As my favorite President often says, “From now on in America, any definition of a successful life must include service to others.” He’s right.

One thing is certain: Here at Washington College, you have a wide variety of wonderful community service organizations to choose from and to help out.  Groups like Big Brother/Big Sister, Peer Educators, and certainly the Hands Out volunteer center. But my favorite organization has to be your B.U.S.H. group, Beautification Using Student Help, which works to keep your campus looking clean and pretty.

Finally, no matter how tough the going may get sometimes, never give up on yourself. Learn to persevere. Try to be like the missionary, who was sitting in a small corner restaurant reading a letter delivered from home. As she opened the letter, a crisp, new twenty-dollar bill caught her attention. Needless to say, she was pleasantly surprised, but as she read the letter, her eyes were distracted by the movement of a raggedly dressed man on the sidewalk leaning against a light post in front of the building. She couldn’t get his peculiar condition and stature off her mind. Thinking that he might have greater financial need than she might, she slipped the bill into an envelope on which she quickly penned, “persevere.” Leaving the restaurant, she nonchalantly dropped the envelope at the stranger’s feet. Turning slowly, he picked it up, read it, watched the woman walk away, and smiled as he tipped his hat and went his way. The next day walking down the street, she felt a tap on her shoulder. She found the same shabbily dressed man smiling as he handed her a roll of bills. When she asked what they were for, he replied: That’s the money you won, lady. Persevere paid five to one!”

I can’t guarantee rewards, but a successful fruitful life.

Thank you, again, for this degree, which I will treasure.  Good luck to you all.

 


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